The letter below was posted to Transworld Ireland at the end of December 2010. I added a few notes at the end on the reaction to it.
Original web posting
I last made serious efforts to find a publisher about four years ago. After getting several more pieces out and re-writing others, it’s time for me to start the process again. I took a look at Transworld Ireland and decided, no, these guys are not for me.
I sent the publisher the open letter below instead.
Dear Eoin McHugh;
I am an Irish writer who has lived abroad for most of his adult life. I have been back in Ireland now for five years. In that time I have managed to have pieces published in all of Ireland’s literary magazines – twice – as well as a couple of anthologies.
I am looking for a publisher for a novel I have written. I looked through your website and list of authors, and noticed that your new fiction writers are exclusively TV producers, actors, columnists, and other such people with a high media profile.
I decided not to bother sending my manuscript to you. I cannot have any trust that it would get serious attention. I would not fit in among the authors on your list. Even if you decided to publish me, I would not feel comfortable with your publishing house.
I beg you sir, to ask yourself this: is there not something wrong with your publishing house if I – as a writer who has won the prestigious McLaverty award and been in every Irish outlet for up-and-coming writers – don’t even bother to submit to you?
My work is not consciously literary or difficult. I have received praise from some well-known sources. The various editors of the literary magazines have expressed their opinion in concrete terms. Some established writers have admired my work, including ******, ******, and ******. But they did so in person and as part of a private conversation. I don’t feel it appropriate for me to set these comments down in writing to sell my work to you. This is what your submissions guidelines seem to suggest that I should do so when it asks for “endorsements for my book”. Your guidelines also ask for “recent press coverage” which I lack. This advice, together with your list of authors, shapes my view of your publishing house and informs my decision not to submit.
I put this question to you: What is your ethos? What is your company’s ethos?
When I go to my local restaurant, the owner tells me he wishes to bring authentic and excellent Indonesian cuisine to Dublin. A building company run by a friend will strive to use Irish materials in an energy-efficient manner. None of them will say: “I need to maximise income for my shareholders in a very difficult market.”
What is your ethos Sir? Do you have any sense of responsibility that you are shaping a new generation of writers?
I see also that you were previously a book buyer at Easons, a company known for playing a role in the literary life of the nation. Was there some sense when Transworld Ireland was set up in 2007, that it should promote new writing that reflects what’s happening in this country? Is there any sense of responsibility for seeking out good writing wherever it may be found?
Just a few short years ago any questions about the extravagances of developers or bankers would have been answered by an appeal to market forces. Now we understand these people were complicit in shaping that market. Those whose decision-making was in accordance with the standards of the times now find themselves derided as being greedy, short-sighted, and fundamentally dishonest.
Your company too is involved in creating the reality which young writers like me inhabit. And that reality is one where I would gladly exchange all my publications in The Stinging Fly, The Dublin Review and elsewhere for an opportunity to act in a television soap – or even have a sibling in such a soap. A reality where a rough count of the lists in Books Ireland reveals that 40% of debut novelists have a high media profile – and the other 60% generally are with smaller publishers. A reality where people who once had aspirations to be a writer get a renewed burst of confidence if by lucky chance their job brings them in contact with high-profile people.
And I too highly value my single radio appearance more than any publication. Why wouldn’t I, when your submissions guidelines ask for recent media coverage but makes no mention of publications in magazines or awards?
If the Transworld parent company pulled out of Ireland tomorrow, it would leave a lasting legacy in the hopes which have been kindled and those which have been quietly extinguished. Will you be proud of the direction you have given to Irish writing?
Remarks added over a year later:
The letter was sent by registered mail to the Transworld offices and a couple of week’s later I posted it on my website. Nothing happened for maybe two months. Then a couple of bloggers noted it and an American friend and poet Djelloul Marbrook made a mention on the Newsblaze website.
There was a small ripple through the blogosphere. Publishing expert Eoin Purcell found it childish and disheartening, and wrote:
“Deciding to pursue writing as a career doesn’t entitle you to succeed or for culture to shape itself to your image of what is right.”
“But lashing Transworld, one of the most clearly commercial publishers in the country, is just a bit of a cheap shot frankly.”
That second sentence is curious. I take ‘clearly commercial’ to mean ‘no, they do not have any ethos. No, they do not have any sense of responsibility for creating a new generation of writers.’ Well, I honestly didn’t know that. So why does it annoy him so much that I pose the question in public? Is Eoin Purcell so big-hearted that it pains him to see me waste my time?
See his blog article where by way of counterpoint he goes on to praise Stephen Leather.
Then it got a (neutral) mention in the UK Sunday Telegraph. The letter also got a positive mention from John Burns in the Atticus page, The Sunday Times of Jan 20 (content only accessible on subscription.)
A week later and ‘the story’ was taken up by The Irish Independent. The journalist mentions that it came to his/her attention from The Telegraph, and seems suspicious that I may have contacts there. A more media-savvy friend told me this is quite understandable.
The article writer is undecided about the letter. It could be that I am alienating publishers and biting the hand that might potentially feed me.
Or it could be that this is “very canny, self-publicising cheek”. “Hmmm. The author’s own marketing tools already seem well-honed,” the article concludes.
Well it’s definitely not the latter.